Jon's column introduces the concept of a generational shift and asks whether this election will see a 24-year cycle of politics finally come to an end.

If giving up smoking during election year wasn’t bad enough, then being 47 years old, the same age as John Key and Barack Obama, has proven the greater burden. My singular lack of political ambition when compared to these two illustrious members of my age cohort is reinforced every news cycle, day after day.

There’s no escaping my relative failure. It appears not to be in my destiny to lead entire nations. But, to make a plea for the sympathetic among you, I have never been able to overcome a crippling ambivalence towards rival party brands, and so joined none. The barrier for my ambitions was simply too high.

This leaves me in the position of 18th Century Rear-Admiral Fisher, who solemnly declared, ‘sworn to no party, of no sect am I’.

So instead of trying not to lose an election, as Key is, I’ve been musing over  whether my generational cohort is, right now, at the very cutting edge of political change. Or perhaps, and in celebration of a third 47-year-old politico, National Party deputy Bill English, are we forty-something’s merely the Dipton-end of the Baby Boomers, destined to clean up an uneven inheritance and, if we’re lucky, strike one or two markers of our own before Generation X leaders grasp the future?

Therein also lies what I think is the key contextual question for this year’s general election. Will 2008 herald a generational shift, our first since 1984, and a new cycle of our politics? And if not that, then what?

To some political commentators it would seem we are already on the cusp of change. The words ‘new generation’ are often bandied about when referring to Key. His speeches, too, are littered with if not a ‘fresh’ language then at least endless repudiations of politics past.

Colin James has gone so far as to label we 47-year-olds the spearhead of Generation X, on the basis that half the population is younger than Key and his deputy English, and that their/my political socialisation experiences are markedly different from Helen Clark’s generation.

As tempting as it is to embrace Colin’s analysis, if for no better reason than to trick one’s existential angst out of its Munch-like pall, my generation isn't qualitatively different to that of the prime minister’s. Not when compared with genuine Xers. We are both baby boomers, existing on different parts of its curve. Colin is on safer ground when he suggests we are experiencing a generational transition.

Political generations, particularly their leaders, are subsets of their wider generational cohorts. There can be variation, to be sure, especially with generational leaders, but I can’t see how they’re analytically separated.

The leader and their cohort are all weaves of a larger thread. A political leader can lead generational change if they are bold and skilled enough, or if history forces it upon them and they respond well. Or leaders can recognise and respond to change arising from within the citizenry.

While epoch-defining events differ between Clark’s political cohort and my own–Vietnam, the pill, and counter culture (such as it was here) versus the Springbok Tour, Abba, and not much else–we are linked by something even stronger, something which Generation X assuredly cannot share with us. We traversed both sides of the 1984 transition.

Generation X has only known the post-Douglas freedoms, globalization, and the benefits of the information revolution. That is qualitatively different from those of us who straddled the Muldoon decline, the excitement and promise of change, and then settled in to the grim realities of Lange and Douglas’ new frontier. Freedom imposed costs alongside liberation.

Observing the change from a command economy to a deregulated one; from a pre-to-post treaty phase of (moral) restoration; and from pre-to-post ANZUS foreign policy, we baby boomers straddled two distinct eras of New Zealand.

At a more mundane level, Key will recall the old front-room/back-room split in the dealing rooms of his early days in the currency markets. Paper dockets, not an ‘enter’ key, would have been his lodestar. Likewise in my first office job, we had paper, far too much of it as I recall, but only the most rudimentary of ‘expert’ computer systems to boost our (already uneven) productivity.

My colleagues at Victoria University can recall the absurdity of having to get the Reserve Bank’s permission to use their own cash to buy a textbook from overseas. My students think such stories quaint. Most have only known the age.

Lecturing Generations X and Y reinforces how these rising generations simply have no real experience of New Zealand’s pre-1984 world except their parent’s anger or nostalgia. Clark’s 50-somethings might reach further back, but her cohort shares with Key’s the crucial experiences of our last generational shift.

These thoughts lead back to the context for our 2008 election. A long 24-year cycle of politics, the age of Rogernomics, is drawing to a close. Not that you’d know it. Roger Douglas’s own return to politics is an arch reminder that, for our former Finance Minster at least, there remains unfinished business. And why not? Our politics is still largely employing his dominant language to debate its points and counterpoints.

Over the course of this campaign I intend canvassing the post-election context. In trying to understand the underlying reality and outward manifestations behind slogans about whom to ‘trust,’ or ‘fresh’ directions and ‘new’ beginnings I intend to examine several dimensions underpinning a generational shift.

These include the age and parliamentary socialisation experiences of Clark versus Key and English, any observable ontological and attitudinal differences, the development, or not, of a new language around our politics, emerging perceptual gaps between generations, and the likely policy inheritance facing our next government.

During the campaign I will also be looking for an intangible marker of generational change, what historian Thurston Clark exquisitely described as an ‘imperceptible passing through of an invisible membrane in time that separates one era from another.’

Will the 2008 campaign give us such a moment or is it still some years off? We don’t yet know, but there will be much fun to be had along the way to finding out.

Comments (11)

by Damian Christie on September 29, 2008
Damian Christie

Nice opening gambit old man, welcome to the blogosphere.... :)

Out of interest, what's your definition of Generation X?  At 34 I was of the view that I was essentially the last year, and that the older Gen Xers were in their early 40s now, which would have made them almost pre 1984 as cogniscent functioning adults (they would have been say, 18, whereas I was 10 in 1984).  But I've heard ever-so-many people younger than me also claim to be Gen Xers.  They wish.

by Dr Jon Johansson on September 29, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Cheers Damian -

I believe the Gen X mob encompasses  28-42 year olds although it is always around the boundaries where there is lively debate. I take your point about the spear head of Gen X but it took me a few years in the work force to come to grips with the fact that I was existing under the cosh of Muldoonism.

In terms of our current range of political leaders only Russel Norman can claim to be Gen X.

The subjective distinction I often employ between Gen X versus Gen Y is the degree of condescension that gets dish out when I ask for help trying to operate this goddamn machine.   

by Tim Watkin on September 29, 2008
Tim Watkin

I think you're in line with what most people would say about who makes up Gen X, Jon. Although the confusion around who's in and who's out is shown in the Wikipedia entry, which has three stabs at the boundaries. I've always found that if a sub-boomer can remember Star Wars the first time round, they're definitely in. If they just remember Return of the Jedi, they're on the fringes.

As an Xer myself I agree with your core point that in demographic terms, Key and Clark are really the same generation. But in terms of political generations, they are coming from different places.

by Michael Appleton on September 29, 2008
Michael Appleton

Well, isn't Jon arguing that demographically *and* politically Clark and Key are from the same generation?

Jon: If you're arguing that Key doesn't represent a genuine generational break from Clark/Cullen, would you make the same claim about Obama vis-a-vis Bush/Clinton and/or Cameron vis-a-vis Blair/Brown?

by Dr Jon Johansson on September 29, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Gary -

Yes you're right, that's precisely my logic. Future columns will explore different dimensions that I believe underpin the notion of a generational shift. My position on Key's leadership will then become clearer.

The American historian Arthur Schlesinger believed there was a neat cycle in American politics whereby a new generation replaced the old order every thirty years. JFK to Clinton was a neat 32 years. Schlesinger also talked about an 'acceleration principle.'

He posited that history, in effect, speed up with the ever-increasing accumulation of knowledge. Going through a technological revolution to the information age lends support to this idea.

Clinton to Obama is only 16 years but the contrast between Obama and McCain is so palpable that the illusion of big generational change obscures the basic point of comparison, which should be between Clinton and Obama.

As for Cameron, it's all in the marketing of a perception of change because you're hardly a new generational leader when you also claim to be the logical successor to Blair.

It's easy to get carried away and conflate generational change when what we're really witnessing is a more mundane change, the possible circulation of elites from different parts of the same generational curve.


by Daniel Miles on September 29, 2008
Daniel Miles

"The subjective distinction I often employ between Gen X versus Gen Y is the degree of condescension that gets dish out when I ask for help trying to operate this goddamn machine."


Surely Gen Y isn't all that bad - though I note your links came out well in the end, and I now know where Dipton is. Separately though - congrats on quitting smoking.

by Keith Bolland on September 29, 2008
Keith Bolland

I think your generational analysis puts a lot of weight on what I'm trying not to call the "deterministic" aspects of political identity formation: the shared life experiences, the climate of political and social expectations, the political subconscious in general. And when talking about voters -- especially the vast majority who care more about, and relate more to, the rugby than the election -- that's probably fair. But for politicians I'm not so sure.

Politicians, especially those who rise to positions of serious power, arrive at their political stances in a very different way from the rest of us, even those of us who obsess over politics for a living or a hobby. It's not just -- not to step on your impending column about Bill English -- the effects of what happens during your parliamentary adolescence, either. For someone who lives or dies by their positions the process of arriving at those positions is necessarily much more self-aware, much more rational, and much more pragmatic. So I think it's a mistake to describe Key or any other leader of being "of" a generation. It's a good line for him (or them) to use, setting themselves up as the avatars of "new thinking" and exhaustion with the last X years of bickering, but the choice to associate yourself with a generational change is every bit as calculating, and hence artificial, as the choice not to.

As a proof by contradiction consider Katherine Rich, who's someone with a lot of talent who did try to be a completely straightforward representative of her native sensibility, and as a result had an admirable but not, in terms of her potential, entirely successful political career.

by Aaron Kirk on September 30, 2008
Aaron Kirk

I wish I could give up smoking. Cold turkey, although appealing, is not going to work for me.

by Dr Jon Johansson on September 30, 2008
Dr Jon Johansson

Keith - I hear you although I believe it is the nature of a politician's ambition that most sets them apart from the rest of us, not their socialisation as such.

If politicians, as a class, were more acutely self-aware than the normal population I'd agree with you but that has not been my experience.

Aaron - I have no advice. I tried accupuncture once, yet lit up on the way out of his office. Cold turkey has worked for me, once for six long years, but I've found being endlessly cajoled by my wife for my weak spirit has proven the most irresistable. Whatever works bro.  

by stuart munro on August 07, 2009
stuart munro

It may be less a matter of the reigning demographic so much as the ruling economic orthodoxy. The excesses of Douglas and Chernomyrdin were at least predicated on expanding financial markets as a means of achieving economic growth. Subsequent to America's decline and failure to recover, this presumption has virtually exhausted its credibility: it seems to be quite possible to have exuberant financial markets in a broadly unsuccessful economy.

What we don't see yet is the outline of a new way of doing things. This government is economically at least thirty years old, it is slow on its intellectual feet, and it's major competitor is also substantially in its dotage. The conventional party policies, of following the policy trends of US or Britain are not tenable in their current depressions. But neither National nor Labour is substantially reacting to the change.

by KJT on October 23, 2014

Gen X know how the computer works. Gen Y think they know.

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